He stopped playing the what if game years ago.
It was too painful, both physically and emotionally, for Grant Hill to go over all of the scenarios in his mind while trying to heal his body.
An All-American and two-time national champion at Duke, Hill continued his dominance in the early years of his NBA career with the Detroit Pistons. He shared Rookie of the Year honors with Jason Kidd in 1995 and was the man expected by many to serve as the superstar bridge for the league between the Michael Jordan era and whatever came next.
A seven-time All-Star and a five-time All-NBA selection, Hill was on a trajectory that could have seen him become one of the league’s all-time greats. He piled up 9,393 points, 3,417 rebounds and 2,720 assists in the first six seasons of his career. Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird and LeBron James are the only three players in league history to eclipse those numbers after their first six seasons.
“There aren’t many people who get anointed to carry the crown of being the face of the league. And when Grant Hill came in he was basically anointed by the league, players and everyone, he was anointed to be the next face of the league,” former Pistons great and Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas said after Hill was announced as one of the selections for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2018. “When you talk about 6-8 guys with a handle, we see a lot of those guys now, but Grant Hill was the first guy who came into the NBA that I remember being 6-8 with a killer crossover. His crossover wasn’t like Allen Iverson’s, but for a 6-8 guy, it was like Iverson’s.”
If not for multiple ankle injuries interrupting what should have been the prime of his career, Hill might very well have put up career numbers that matched his early profile. Instead, his 19-year career — which included stops with the Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns and LA Clippers — is celebrated as much for his early brilliance as it was the perseverance he showed in his post-injury years.
“I’ve said this before, but if he and Penny Hardaway hadn’t gotten hurt and had to deal with the injuries they did during their careers, the bar for imagery, in terms of the player you wanted to be like if you were 6-7 or 6-8, it would have been those two guys,” Thomas said. “We see a lot of young players like that these days, guys who see LeBron James and Kevin Durant as the players they want to model their games after, the guys they want to play like. If Penny and Grant don’t get hurt, those are the two guys back in their day that everyone wants to play like.”
Hill would have settled for at least a brief return to his pre-injury form. But it never happened. He was a stellar role player, great in every locker room he set foot in and one of the league’s best ambassadors off the court. He only enjoyed rare flashes of the elite athleticism that marked his early years and retired on June 1, 2013.
Hill’s Hall of Fame case was bolstered by the combination of the quality and length of his NBA career, as well as his spectacular college career. In addition to the two national titles, he also led the Blue Devils to a third Final Four during his career from 1990-94. He also earned National Defensive Player of the Year, ACC Player of the Year and first-team All-American honors as a Blue Devil.
He is the first former Blue Devils player to receive Hall of Fame honors.
The son of former NFL Pro Bowl running back Calvin Hill and Janet Hill, Grant Hill insists he’s best known to the new generation of basketball fans for his work as an analyst for Turner Sports’ NBA and March Madness coverage.
Hill is also a part of the ownership group, led by Tony Ressler, that purchased the Atlanta Hawks in June of 2015, keeping him engaged in the game on several different levels.
He spoke with NBA.com about his journey from the Washington D.C. suburbs to his college and pro days and now Springfield, where the Hall of Fame class will be enshrined Sept. 7:
NBA.com: Do you look back at your basketball life, from high school to Duke to the NBA and nearly two decades in the league, and feel like it went by in a flash?
Hill: It’s funny, when you’re in it and particularly for me post-injury, those last nine years, it seemed like it was a long career. I mean, particularly when you’re in your late 30s, it’s like, ‘wow, I’ve been going at this for a while.’ But then you look back when you retire and now five years removed and you kind of reflect on it all, it does seem like it all went by pretty fast. I was just getting ready to come into the league and you’re coming off your college stuff, and it just doesn’t seem like college was 20 years ago or whatever it was. It doesn’t seem like I just started playing varsity at [South Lakes High in Reston, Va.] over 30 years ago. It’s like where did the time go. You are up and you can’t run anymore and you’re middle aged, and it’s like what happened?
NBA.com: Well, let’s go back to that time, before you hit high school and the varsity. When was that time or that moment for you when you realized basketball was going to be more than just a game for you?
Hill: I think in my pre-Duke years, there were two moments when it hit me. Up until high school I played soccer, basketball and whatever and I was a fan, more a fan of college basketball. I obviously knew about the NBA but I was still just a fan. You dreamed about it. But it was one of those things where the idea of it just seemed so impossible, you know. So for me at the end of my eighth grade year I played in a national tournament, an AAU tournament — and it looked a lot different then compared to what they look like now — and our team won the tournament. And playing on that stage in St. Louis, and [Chris] Webber and [Alan] Henderson and [Jamal] Mashburn were all there representing their teams, and even at that point, even though I was really young, I held my own. I was an All-Star, I thought I should have been MVP but another guy on my team got it. But at that point you are measuring yourself against the so-called best in the country and not just in your neighborhood or your neck of the woods. So that was a huge confidence booster.
NBA.com: You said there were two moments, what was the other one?
Hill: Yes, then came my freshman year of high school. I didn’t want to play varsity as a freshman. I wanted to play with my friends but my varsity coach asked me to play and my dad told me to play, and keep in mind I started high school when I was 13 so I was young. So again, I wanted to play with my friends on the freshmen team, who by the way went 22-0 that year, so if I had played with them I might have messed them up (laughing). But I played varsity and spending that year on the varsity and that experience gave me a big boost of confidence. I started getting letters from colleges and that summer and then my sophomore year is when things really took off. Now I’m not just one of the top young players in the D.C. area, you know the DMV, but I’m holding my own and putting up numbers with the best high school players in the DMV and around the country. And I think that’s when it really hit me that I’ve got a chance to play at a major Division I school. I certainly wasn’t thinking NBA or anything like the Hall of Fame back then, you didn’t go there. But college ball certainly was on my mind and the dream was to maybe have an opportunity to play for a national championship one day in college.
NBA.com: The environment then seems so much different than what it is for the elite high school players now. The hoop dream was there, but it seems like it’s gotten bigger, if that makes sense, in the years since you were a McDonald’s All-American and going along on your journey?
Hill: It’s funny you say that. I was recently with [Jason] Kidd and we had a chance to talk and reflect on our respective careers. And it was a little different for him growing up in Oakland and the Bay Area. He was maybe around older guys and guys who had been in the league, but you just didn’t think about the league when you were at those camps and tournaments with the other elite high school players. The conversations weren’t about the NBA, it was always about making it to the college level and finding the best place for you on that level. You had the dream, it was maybe always in the back of your mind, but the circumstances were so different a generation ago. Like I said, my confidence prior to my freshman year of high school to after my freshman year was night and day.
NBA.com: So much has been made over the years about you choosing Duke for college. Your mom wanted you to go to Georgetown and your dad wanted you to go to North Carolina. What made you split the middle and go with Duke?
Hill: The context of why my parents felt that way is pretty interesting. The first game I saw and really fell in love with the game was the 1982 NCAA title game with Georgetown and North Carolina. That game with Patrick Ewing and Sleepy Floyd for Georgetown and James Worthy and of course Michael Jordan as a freshman hitting that shot to win the game. From that moment on I followed those two teams. And we had just bought a Betamax and the first thing we taped was that Final Four, so I watched that game so many times I know the entire call, I memorized that game and was obsessed with it. And then Michael Jackson, who went to Georgetown, he went to my local high school and lived a couple streets down from me, so I started watching him when he was in high school. Back in the day you’d go to the local high school and watch the game and he was like this amazing player. I idolized him, really before I even really knew about college basketball. And he was going to Georgetown, so my mom ending up getting season tickets and my mom and I, we had two tickets, and we would go to all these games at the [Capital] Center and she became a huge Georgetown fan. And my dad had always been a fan of Dean Smith really based on a lot of what he did in the 1970s, integrating the ACC and just his stance on a lot of social issues more than just what he’d done as one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game. So those were the two schools I had grown up watching and they both had their own opinions as to what was best.
NBA.com: So like all good, obedient children, you chose Duke?
Hill: (Laughing) Exactly. But seriously, Duke, and really Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski), just made an impression on me. I got to know him and follow what he was doing with his teams and his program. And as our communication increased, phone calls and mail, and then going and taking official visits my junior year of high school, it was just something about him I believed in and I wanted to be a part of that program. I took one visit, one official visit, and when I came back from it I knew that’s where I wanted to be.
NBA.com: When you look back on that decision now and the legacy you left as one the greatest players in Duke and college basketball history on those championship teams, does it register that you are to someone else who Michael Jackson was to you, growing up and idolizing a star player who seemed larger than life?
Hill: It’s crazy. Like when I finished up at Duke and went into the NBA, I was kind of like the big brother. I’m in Detroit and you’ve got Elton Brand and Shane Battier and Corey Maggette and that whole crew and Jeff Capel, I’m not that far removed in terms of my age differential from those guys. Now you get to the mid-2000s and you fast forward realizing that I’m old enough to be a parent of some of these guys now and the kids like Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles and even R.J. Barrett, they are all sort of aware of what I did and my career at Duke, and certainly the ups and the downs of my professional career and even the television work keeps me somewhat relevant in their eyes, but it’s the parents who know me better than the kids. And that humbles you real quick. I happened to be at Duke last year and gave a speech and had a couple of speaking engagements during homecoming. And R.J. was on his visit and I think his parents were more excited to see me than he was. Jayson Tatum’s mom is a die-hard Tamia (wife, artist) fan, so it’s funny how I went from a contemporary to big brother to uncle to now. I don’t know, some of these kids were born after I was healthy in Detroit, and it’s crazy. There’s also a sense of real pride to know that I played a part in the legacy of those teams. These young guys weren’t born when we did what we did at Duke, but the impact is still felt and there’s certainly a healthy respect for what we were able to accomplish as a group.
NBA.com: You mentioned your healthy years in Detroit and it must seem like another lifetime. Even with the injured years, you lasted 19 years. Do you still wrestle with the idea of what might have been if you weren’t injured or do you look back and see nearly 20 years in the league and marvel at how you got through it all?
Hill: You know, that’s a really good question. I think when I was in the midst of it, fighting the injuries in Orlando and then went to Phoenix, you’re just so caught up in the moment and looking forward. You don’t have time to dwell on what did or didn’t happen in the past. You’re only focused on what do I need to do to get healthy, to add value to this team, what do I need to do to be competitive in my late 30s and into my 40s? You’re just so focused and the direction is forward. For me actually, when I retired and people start talking about where you fit and the Hall of Fame and things like that, you slow down a little bit and contemplate your basketball life, so to speak. I kind of convinced myself in a way that, and maybe it was a way to protect myself if none of this [Hall of Fame] ever happened, that I didn’t need that stuff because I know what I overcame and what I had to fight through just to get back and play in my final years. That was the most important thing for me. That validated the journey for me. At least that’s what I convinced myself of immediately after I retired. But then when this all came about and I got that call (from the Hall of Fame), you realize that you might have suppressed some things.
NBA.com: You were supposed to be the heir apparent to Michael Jordan. I remember the arguments when you played in Detroit, before Kobe and T-Mac and Vince Carter. That has to be a hard thing to shake, what could have or should have been?
Hill: It does bother me that I was hurt, that I was on this trajectory early on in Detroit and things were coming together and then it’s an incomplete. I didn’t get a chance to see it through, to see what could have been. And that’s something that, if I’m being honest with myself, it really, really bothered me. And maybe I’m getting too deep with this, but the Hall of Fame is very validating for me and I didn’t realize how much I needed it, how much I needed that recognition that … I don’t always see what I did back in the day, back in the 90s. I remember the end. And I remember the hard times, the struggles. So I sat with J-Kidd recently and one of the amazing things … his career was amazing and he solidified everything he was able to accomplish with the numbers and the championship and just a stellar, long career. He was able to see it through. But to hear him talk about me and to hear what he thought of me back in the 90s, even now, not to say that I was overly sensitive, but somebody like him remembers. And I don’t remember it the same way. I remember being hurt. I’ve tended to focus on the struggle. So in a round sort of way this has all been a validating thing for me and confirmed some things for me. I did some good things, I did play in the Olympics. I was elite, for a period of time, you know. It wasn’t all bad, if that makes sense.
NBA.com: It does. The reason I brought that up is because I had this conversation with Dominique Wilkins the year he went into the Hall of Fame and he admitted that he’d done a poor job recognizing his significance while he was playing. He said he didn’t compartmentalize his career while he was in the midst of it because he was working so hard to reach a certain level that he just didn’t have or make the time to take a step back and really appreciate what he’d accomplished. Is it difficult for you as well to get a grasp on what you and your career might mean to the outside world until you get the proper distance and a different perspective?
Hill: You really don’t have that time when you’re in the middle of it. You just don’t. And I wonder, too, if today’s era and generation of players will have a different perspective, will they have more awareness because of social media. I don’t know. In my case, it was an interesting journey and everyone’s story is unique. But yeah, I forget sometimes, even my kids remind me. When I was in Phoenix, my daughter Myla would go on YouTube and look at old highlights and she said, ‘oh dad, you weren’t always a scrub.’ And you repair your ego a little bit, you look at it and go, ‘oh yeah, I was pretty good at one time.’ I’ve had more of those sort of moments now that reflect and get a chance to look back over the years to see some of the things I was fortunate enough to do. I don’t think I appreciated how talented or good I was while I was going through those moments, but it really lifts you up to have people remind you.
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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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